Nicki Minaj calling Miley Cyrus out for tone policing at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, Credit: Billboard/For Harriet


Tone policing is a dangerous habit that has real psychosocial consequences. By telling people not to express their anger at oppression, tone police are not only promoting their own personal comfort over that of someone who is in pain, but they are also asking the angry people to suffer in silence, which has very serious psychological consequences. In addition, the current academic obsession with “civility” (a fancy proxy for tone) seems to have only placed (uncooperative) scholars of color in its crosshairs.

People engaging in tone policing are often having a difficult time distinguishing between discomfort due to a potentially emotional person communicating about their experiences of oppression versus discomfort due to someone’s malicious behavior. When someone communicates the factual and emotional truth of their experiences with oppression to you, it is not a malicious attack on you or your existence. Your discomfort is not their fault either; it is the fault of the oppressive structure they are responding to, one which you may be benefiting from.

Moreover, tone policing is mean, as I explain elsewhere. When tone police tell people that they can’t or won’t listen because of tone, what they are really communicating is, “I don’t care about your experience with oppression or how it makes you feel. I only care about how it is discomfiting for me to hear about it.”

The following quotes all come from essays that you should read, and hopefully they will help create more understanding about why tone policing is bad.

edit: It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter by disability activists that tone policing is also ableist because it insists that neurodiverse people present like neurotypical people. It also serves to label people as “crazy,” which is a form of discrediting that is ableist in nature.

My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also. — Audre Lorde
First, let me say — tone policing is boring. If somebody is delivering points in a way you don’t like, it doesn’t make their points invalid. It just means you do not like the delivery. Big deal. Get over it and deal with it. — Sara Luckey
“No one gives a shit about how it makes me feel when I am told that things would get better if I just “asked nicely”. You don’t think I’ve tried that? The reason I’m angry is that I tried playing by your rules of niceness, and you ignored me.” — NinjaCate
Tone policing, simply put, is the dismissal of a person’s argument (generally a less-privileged person in social justice discourse) because of their tone, which may be perceived by the bigoted more-privileged person as ‘too personal,’ ‘too emotional’ or ‘too angry.’ Meanwhile, the oversensitivity argument basically amounts to the bigoted more-privileged person telling the less-privileged person to suck it up and deal with the abuse the kyriarchy deals out. Put together, these things add up to a massive display of double standards. ‘I shouldn’t have to deal with your [justified] anger/pain, but you should just sit back and take my [unjustified] bigotry.’ — Anger is Justified
Firstly, it’s wrong. Being calm and nice does not help me get more allies. It might get me “allies.” “Allies” meaning men who want to look good to feminists but are really misogynists who expect their every need to be catered to and will hold their allyship hostage any time someone says something they don’t like. — Lindsey Weedston
The purpose of polite behavior is never virtuous. Deceit, surrender, and concealment: these are not virtues. The goal of the mannerly is comfort, per se…. Most often, the people who can least afford to further efface and deny the truth of what they experience, the people whose very existence is most endangered and, therefore, most in need of vigilantly truthful affirmation, these are the people — the poor and the children — who are punished most severely for departures from the civilities that grease oppression. If you make and keep my life horrible then, when I can tell the truth, it will be a horrible truth; it will not sound good or look good or, God willing, feel good for you either. — June Jordan
Now, who gets to determine what “civil” behavior and speech is, and what is not? Even as administrators espouse the value of “community” it is clear that the final arbiters of civility are they themselves. And this is what makes signing on to civility something one should think twice about — civility is in the eye of the powerful. And if one believes that it will protect one against homophobic, racist, sexist, and emphatic political speech of all stripes in an even and “democratic” manner, one should first look at the case history of civility, and its relation to free speech. — David Palumbo-Liu
We do not pretend to know what Native Hawaiians should do to transform the lives of our people, but we do know that none of us can figure that out alone. Disagreements should be expected and honored, as should a whole range of emotions from anger to sorrow. None of us can afford to lose each other, and certainly not because some of us do not appear “respectable,” as defined by OHA and as amplified by the mainstream media.
We know that Colonialism in all of its manifestations (loss of land, health, genealogy, culture, unity; all of which Native Hawaiians on both sides of the question of federal recognition continue to testify to again and again) will not go away if we simply “be good.” Colonialism will not go away if we just refrain from yelling, crying, or talking for more than two minutes. — Lani Teves
If I sound angry and pissed-off to you, it’s because I am. Stop taking it so fucking personally and start trying to figure out more about how systemic inequality functions in the university to produce death by a thousand paper cuts for women faculty . . . — Thus Spake Zuska
If you see someone who is angry and upset about something that was said or done to them, don’t tell them they should be nicer. Instead: Recognize their emotions as valid. Recognize that their emotional state is an indication that something extremely harmful was done to them, whether it was by you, or someone else. Work to understand why the action was oppressive. Take all that energy that you’re wasting being so concerned with how people are responding to their own oppression, and channel it into fighting oppression. — Do or Die

tl;dr: We’ve got a world to change. We can worry about how people verbally express the need for change, or we can . . .